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Glossary of Disability Terms

Below are the terms often used in the disability community.

Acquired Brain Injury (ABI)

A brain injury that occurs after birth. It can be a result of an internal injury (e.g., tumor, stroke, aneurysm), an external injury (e.g., motor vehicle accident, fall, sports injury) or ingestion of a toxic substance.

Asperger’s Syndrome

A person with Asperger’s Syndrome usually has normal intelligence and language development. The person may have problems with social skills, handling change, or reading social cues such as body language.  The person might also have a preoccupation with a particular interest, or be oversensitive to sounds, smells, tastes, etc. Asperger’s Syndrome is sometimes referred to as “high-functioning autism.”

Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)

A diagnosis with symptoms that may include difficulty paying attention, being easily distracted and the inability to focus more than a few moments on mental tasks.  (See also attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.)

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

A diagnosis with symptoms that may include difficulty focusing attention and effort to tasks, difficulty in impulse control or delay of gratification and increased activity unrelated to the current task or situation. Most people who have a diagnosis of ADHD alone are not eligible for developmental disability services.


A neurological disorder that affects normal development in the areas of social interaction, behavior, and communication skills. This developmental disability typically appears during the first three years of life. The main features include disturbances of: 1) developmental rates; 2) responses to sensory stimulation; 3) speech, language, and learning abilities; 4) ability to relate to people, events and objects.

Brain Injury

Any level of injury to the brain often caused by an impact with the skull.

Cerebral Palsy

A condition caused by damage to the brain before, during or after birth, that limits a person’s ability to fully control his/her muscles. People with CP are affected in different areas of the body, in the number of body parts affected, and in their symptoms.  Common characteristics of CP include involuntary movements, problems making voluntary movements because muscles are spastic or tense, and a loss of coordination.

Congenital Disability

A disability that exists at birth.

Cystic Fibrosis

A genetic disease that causes the body to produce an abnormally thick, sticky mucus.  This mucus clogs the lungs, causes lung infections, and blocks the pancreas, which keeps enzymes from reaching the intestines to digest food.


Hearing loss so severe that communication and learning are primarily by visual methods.  Members of the deaf community who communicate primarily using American Sign Language refer to themselves as Deaf.


Significant combined loss/impairment of both senses (hearing and visual).  People who are deaf-blind may have unique problems with communication, mobility and other daily living skills that make achieving independence more difficult.


Complete or partial loss of the sense of hearing.  The loss may be present at birth or acquired, temporary or permanent.  It may be caused by disease or injury to the auditory nerve.

Developmental Disability (DD) (As defined by federal law)

(A) means a severe, chronic disability of an individual that— (i) is attributable to a mental or physical impairment or combination of mental and physical impairments; (ii) is manifested before the individual attains age 22; (iii) is likely to continue indefinitely; (iv) results in substantial functional limitations in 3 or more of the following areas of major life activity: (I) Self-care. (II) Receptive and expressive language. (III) Learning. (IV) Mobility. (V) Self-direction. (VI) Capacity for independent living. (VII) Economic self-sufficiency; and (v) reflects the individual’s need for a combination and sequence of special, interdisciplinary, or generic services, individualized supports, or other forms of assistance that are of lifelong or extended duration.

Developmental Disability (DD) (As defined by North Carolina General Statute)

North Carolina General Statute 122C-3(12a) defines a developmental disability as a severe, chronic disability of a person which is attributable to mental or physical impairment or combination of mental and physical impairments; is manifested before the person attains age 22, unless the disability is caused by traumatic head injury and is manifested after age 22; is likely to continue indefinitely; results in substantial functional limitations in three or more of the following areas of major life activity: (a) self-care, (b) reception (understanding) and expressive language, (c) learning, (d) mobility (ability to move), (e) self-direction (motivation), (f) the capacity for independent living, (g) economic self-sufficiency; reflects the person’s need for a combination or sequence of special interdisciplinary services which are of a lifelong or extended duration and are individually planned and coordinated; or when applied to children from birth through four years of age, may be evidenced as developmental delay.

Down Syndrome

A genetic condition caused by a chromosomal abnormality.  Atypical cell development results in 47 chromosomes instead of the usual 46 chromosomes.  As a result, there is some degree of cognitive disability and other developmental delays.  Common physical features of Down syndrome include small stature, decreased muscle tone, flattened bridge of the nose and upward slant to the eyes.

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North Carolina Council on Developmental Disabilities

Office Hours: 9AM-4PM Monday-Friday
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This project was supported, in part by grant number 2001NCSCDD-02, from the U.S. Administration for Community Living, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. 20201. Grantees undertaking projects with government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, necessarily represent official ACL policy.

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